This week’s episode of Special Assignment exposes the rampant abuse and killing of the already endangered vulture population in South Africa and parts of the continent, as well as Asian countries, in a quest for wealth and success by school children, businessmen, gamblers and other groups. These people believe that vultures’ heads bring visions of the future, because of their excellent eyesight. Their brains are the most treasured find. Rolled into a cigarette or inhaled as vapors, vulture brains, it is believed, can help at horse races, with betting, with lotto numbers, boost an exam performance, or lure more clients to a business.

Vultures play a very important ecological role. By rapidly consuming the remains of dead animals, vultures can prevent these carcasses from acting as hosts to various diseases that may spread to livestock. But because of many years of being hunted illegally, the vulture population has declined rapidly. The birds are now endangered and one of the species – the Egyptian vulture, is extinct. Worldwide, there are less than 3000 breeding pairs left.

The harvesting of vultures is a lucrative industry and the trade in vulture parts is illegal in South Africa, making it a very secretive operation. There is growing concern that KwaZulu-Natal seems to be the greatest area of threat for vultures at the moment. In particular, the Mkhuze Game Reserve in Zululand is one of the hardest hit places.

Special Assignment follows the vulture trade chain from Johannesburg all the way to KwaZulu-Natal. Our investigation exposes the culprits, which include hunters who kill vultures for muthi purposes, as well as farmers who often poison carcasses to get rid of pests that eat their livestock, in the process killing large numbers of vultures. This happens when the vultures gather to feed on the poisoned carcasses.

Watch “BIRDS OF PREY” produced by Lindile Mpanza on Special Assignment – airing Sundays on SABC 3 at 20:30PM, repeated Mondays at 23:30PM.